Exploring Owens Valley: Memorial Day 2009
From the moment the passes close each fall, I have serious Eastern Sierra withdrawals. Getting from the Bay Area to the “East Side” in the winter involves a long and circuitous route, undoable in a weekend. Even when the passes are open, I expect a minimum of a five hour drive just to get over the mountains to the other side. The East Side is my favorite place in California and every time I visit I am in awe at the beauty, history, and opportunity for adventure that surrounds me. The 395 corridor from Bridgeport to Ridgecrest offers enough activities to keep a curious explorer and outdoor nut busy for ten lifetimes.
The Eastern Sierra is the best point of access to my favorite backpacking terrain – trail heads that start at 9000+ feet and spit you straight into the granite wilderness of the High Sierra. The western slope of the Sierra is gradual and forest covered, but the east slope is steep and dramatic, with sharp granite peaks over 14,000 feet with high desert terrain at their feet. While I’ve always been in awe of the scenery around me when driving through, and dabbled around some of the famous rock climbing areas, it was really last year that I started exploring with the help of some 4×4 geocaching friends. Those two trips really opened my eyes to all of the unique things to do along the east slopes of the Sierra.
So, when Paige suggested a Memorial Day weekend trip to this area, of course I couldn’t refuse! We headed out Saturday morning over Tioga Pass, which had just opened the previous Wednesday. There was still a lot of snow up at the Pass, and when we stopped to fish at Ellery Lake it was difficult to cast among the floating chunks of ice. David tried for a while while I pulled out the camera and took some shots of skiiers up on the snowy ridge behind the lake.
We headed down to Mammoth for a quick stop at Mammoth Mountaineering, one of my favorite small local gear shops. Got out of there without spending all of my life savings, but it was close. After that it was time for a dip in a hot spring. The Long Valley (between Crowley Lake and Mammoth) has some incredible undeveloped hot springs, and they are definitely worth visiting on a pass through the area. Don’t stop if you’re offended by odd characters and naked people though – you never know who you’re going to meet out there. It adds to the charm, I suppose.
We finally worked our way down to Bishop for fuel and supplies, then met the rest of the gang at another hot spring just south of town from which we watched distant thunderstorms. It was then back to the campsite at Horton Creek, where we got to meet Margo and Roger who were joining us after picking up a trailer for Burning Man (this was its inaugural trip). Horton Creek BLM campground is one of my favorites – it sits at the feet of Mt Tom and has wide open views across the valley of the Gorge, White Mountain, and Boundary Peak. (view day 1 photos)
On Sunday we drove south to the Alabama Hills, about an hour south of camp. The Alabama Hills are famous for their movie history (a very popular filming location), but they also provide interesting rock piles and arches that are fun to scramble around and photograph. With the prominent Mt Whitney ridge directly to the west and arches all over the hills, the photography opportunities are endless. A bit of Googling will reveal enough GPS coordinates of interesting sites to keep you busy for days.
After a hot and dusty day of scrambling around the rocks, we headed back to the hot spring outside of Bishop for a long soak and some cold beers from the cooler. We had dinner at the sushi place in Bishop and it was incredible! You wouldn’t think that sushi would be good and fresh in the desert, but the food was out of this world, just as good as the fresh food I get here in the Bay Area. After enjoying an absolutely incredible Sierra-Wave fueled sunset, we had a nice campfire and I hit the sack early, so tired from the day’s adventures. (view day 2 photos)
On Sunday we all went our own ways, and David, Paige, Greg and I decided to head over to Fish Slough to explore the petroglyphs. The first site was underwhelming, but at one spot we found some really detailed glyphs – feet, sheep, human figures, and more. We ended up at one of the Long Valley hot springs, and then David and I headed off to work our way home with side trips to fish along Rush Creek (no success) and lunch at Whoa Nellie (major success). Another incredible weekend on the books. (view day 3 photos)